Automating Voter Registration

Joseph Shure, Rutgers University

Remove the unnecessary obstacle of voter registration from the process of democratic participation: Use data from tax rolls, motor vehicle registration records and the Census to automatically register citizens.

It is an unfortunate reality of American politics that relatively few citizens wish to participate in the system by voting. More unfortunate, however, is the distinct possibility that millions of Americans who do want to cast their ballots cannot do so because of a technicality. Voter-initiated registration, Key Facts once a necessary safeguard • In 43 states, citizens wishing to vote in a given against fraud, has become election must register well before it takes obsolete. Rather than proplace, in some cases three weeks before Electect American democracy, tion Day. • 72 percent of eligible voters are registered to requirements to register hincast their ballots. Among eligible voters aged der democratic elections by 18 to 24, the figure drops to 58 percent. preventing many of those • The more than 122 million voters who came to who want to vote — and who the polls on Election Day in 2004 comprised are perfectly eligible to do so approximately 70 percent of the country’s reg— from casting their ballots. istered, voters, but only 55.3% of the country’s Americans should not forego voting-age population. the right to vote because they failed to fill out a form three weeks before an election. State governments have access to information — such as tax forms and motor vehicle registration records — that can determine the identity of all eligible voters. They should submit this information to the state agency in charge of administering elections (in New Talking Points Jersey’s case the Division of • Once a necessary safeguard against fraud, Elections), under the aegis of voter-initiated registration now serves no purthe Attorney General’s Ofpose other than to keep Americans away from fice. We live in an era when the polls. technology allows govern• A healthy democracy requires participation ment authorities to keep acfrom as many citizens as possible. State governcurate electronic records of ments must ensure their citizens be counted by virtually all citizens. removing the burden of registering to vote.
• State and local governments have the information needed to determine who under their jurisdiction is eligible to vote. Various state agencies can work together to ensure that all eligible voters are registered.

Hisotry In the 2000 election, a significant portion of registered voters who did not end up

casting votes cited registration problems as the main reason they did not vote. A 2001 report issued by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project pointed out that according to U.S. Census data, the 3 million registered voters (7.4 percent) who did not vote reported that they declined to do so mainly because of trouble involving registration. The report notes, “Errors in databases occur even under the most scrupulous management.” Analysis In 43 states, citizens wishing to vote must register well before the election. Automatic registration would remove this hurdle and likely increase electoral participation dramatically. The data shows that the current system warrants revision: 72 percent of eligible voters are registered to cast their ballots. Among eligible voters aged 18 to 24, the figure drops to 58 percent. In his book “Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression,” voting rights scholar Spencer Overton writes that universal registration could increase electoral participation while reducing the risk of fraud. But some politicians may oppose such a measure, he writes, because it would “diminish their ability to target their registration efforts to doctor the composition of the electorate.” The only ones who stand to gain from the current reliance on voter-initiated registration are politicians who remain in office because too few of their constituents participate in the electoral process. By failing to register eligible voters automatically, states miss the opportunity to bring about a more responsive and representative government. Next Steps A plan recently introduced in New York’s State Senate provides for an effective way to automate registration for all eligible voters in the state. The policy would force the state’s Department of Taxation and Finance and Department of Motor Vehicles to produce lists of every citizen who would turn 18 before the next election and send these lists to the State Board of Elections, which would then have to register all the eligible voters on these lists. Though not all citizens register motor vehicles, obtain identification cards from the DMV or pay taxes, using the data garnered from these activities to automatically register voters would achieve near total (if not universal) registration, and would facilitate the votes of millions more Americans. The first step on the road to universal registration is for citizens to lobby their state legislators to implement a plan like the one proposed in New York. Universal registration would remove a needless and constricting obstacle to democratic participation
Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “Voter Registration.” http:// *A full list of sources is available upon request. 33